This is a rant. If you don’t like rants then proceed no further. If you don’t like rants and do proceed don’t blame me. You were warned.
It’s Lent. The very fact that I as a Baptist even know that is quite an accomplishment. I have never kept track of the church calendar very well beyond the biggies (Christmas, Easter) and even then it’s more because it is expected. I don’t know if there are blogs every lenten season by evangelicals and others that talk about Lent’s dangers but I have come across a few this year and I thought that before I give up sarcasm as my sacrifice for lent, albeit a week late, I would weigh in on the subject.
Lent has never been a part of my life. When I was young and knew everything I used to argue fervently about its great lack of biblicity and legalism. I was raised in a Fundamentalist Baptist home where Lent would have been seen as a works oriented attempt to score points with God and reduce the amount of time one had to spend in Purgatory. No way we were going to insult the doctrine of free grace by giving stuff up for forty days. There were so many other ways to insult it, like never having a drink for a whole lifetime and believing that is what really scores points with God. But I digress.
There are dangers in lenten observances, which one blogger has aptly pointed out here and there is little doubt that Lent is poorly understood and poorly practised by some who are faithful in observing it. But as a lifetime non practising lent observer allow me to point out just a few dangers that those of us on the sidelines need to be careful about as well.
We live in a culture that does not know very much about self denial. And much of evangelical Christianity has bought into this concept. Giving up the burrito referred to in the above blog wouldn’t ever be on the radar of most people in our culture other than those wicked Catholics and ignorant participating Protestants during Lent. We can wax eloquent about the evils of alcohol, tobacco, and in the good old days would have added dancing, movies, rock music and pretty much anything that smacked of fun, to the list as well. But in all the years of my purgatorial life in fundamentalism I cannot remember gluttony being preached against. (As I heard one pastor say “It’s hard to preach on self control when you bring your bagels into the pulpit”). It is the allowable protestant vice. One can preach against smoking because it destroys the temple of God and at the same time have a “temple” that is approaching the size of an amphitheatre. God gives us all good things to enjoy after all and the thought of excusing ourselves from such things for the sake of preparing to commemorate the death of the Son of God paying for our sins, is too horrifying to contemplate.
A little lenten practise for just forty days might be just the thing to teach us that fasting from something is good for us, if not spiritually then certainly physically. Let’s give our pancreases a break for a while. We are called to a life of self denial for the sake of following Christ – as a mark of following Christ. If we can’t surrender up a legitimate thing for a month and a quarter then we are in serious trouble. And trying to defend the non-participation on the basis of spirituality rings somewhat hollow. Is the man who shouts on the street corner “I fast two days in the week” a worse sinner than the one who yells back “Oh yea? Well I stuff myself silly for seven!!”? I know that there are great dangers in finding merit in our religious practises and observances. But that hardly means we shouldn’t have any. Does the fact that an evangelical thinks his church attendance means that he is better than his neighbour mean we should do away with going to church? What if he brags about how much money he puts in the plate every Sunday? You can be sure no one in evangelicalism will suggest surrendering up the offering.
The concern for many evangelicals seems to be that observing Lent will lead to pride along the lines of the Pharisees. But bragging about what we give up is not the only way to demonstrate pride and deny the Gospel. Some who give up for lent are no doubt guilty of this kind of self exaltation. And they no doubt have many other things that they do not give up that they should, and not just for forty days. But those of us who do not observe lent can brag just as much about not doing it. Here’s an idea. Maybe we should just shut up about a good long list of things that we either do or do not do. It surely cannot be any more spiritual to avoid a practise and brag about it to the world as it is to participate in one and do the same thing. Perhaps the whole matter of Christian humility is not just a matter of whether we observe lent or not. Perhaps it’s possible to be proud without ever observing lent. Perhaps pride is a matter of heart. Visit any number of evangelical websites of churches, missions agencies and individuals and you will not be long in discovering how generous they are to the poor, how faithful they are to the Scriptures, what revolutionary programmes they have devised and how you should join them in on it (sometimes for only a nominal fee) if you want to be closer to God. You can discover how influential and popular and educated and godly their pastor is, how many people attend their church, how many people would be in hell now if it weren’t for them, how many chapters of the Bible they are reading every day, how many people read their blogs, how much growth they have experienced in the little while they have been turning the world upside down. They will push on you what book the author, or pastor, or organization head has recently written and which you cannot afford to be without. They will show you their massive libraries and let you know just how much reading they get done despite their frantic schedules. But they don’t observe the liturgical calendar. Wouldn’t want to let pride slip in.
I think maybe I will give up something for lent. I just might give up snooping around those who do and stop inventing reasons why they are wrong until I can get the beams out of my own eyes. Maybe I’ll give up reading the guys from my team and always assuming that this is what true spirituality is. I may find it so helpful that I won’t take it up again after Lent. But then I’d have to find something else to give up next year. Gossip maybe, or incendiary blog posts like this.
I have a dear friend who many years ago left the Anglican Church to become a Roman Catholic. And unless I don’t make it I fully expect to see him in glory when the kingdom is consummated. (Don’t panic. I haven’t forsaken the doctrines of the Reformation). He’ll be there for sure. I hope he can survive heaven if I am not there to help him in his encounters with some evangelicals who will find it so surprising that he made it. No one will be surprised if they don’t find me. I think I’ll send this off to him. Maybe it will give him a smile as he groans under that ungodly hardship of going without his burritos for another month.